Friday, April 12, 2024

A Review of Eleanor Parker’s Winters in the World

St. Augustine preaching to Ethelbert and Bertha
Eleanor Parker’s Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books, 2022)

It is said that when Pope St Gregory the Great commissioned St Augustine of Canterbury to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after they displaced the Celtic Christian Britons in the sixth century, he instructed the missionary to respect local customs and uproot only what is harmful or impious. If the Anglo-Saxon Christian culture that emerged a hundred years later is the fruit of Augustine’s efforts, then the Apostle of England and his spiritual descendants earn an A+ in inculturation. As Eleanor Parker writes in her latest book, Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year, the Anglo-Saxon liturgical calendar and its attendant beliefs were “at one and the same time, firmly rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture and fully part of the wider international church [sic]” (21).

Parker is well equipped to explain how. The author of two other books on medieval England and of the award-winning blog, A Clerk of Oxford, Parker has a confident command of the primary sources of Anglo-Saxon literature and a good instinct for how to interpret them. She is also a fine storyteller, beginning her chapters with a fetching scenario and perhaps not explaining it until the end.
Parker’s goal in Winters is twofold: to reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon year and to introduce her audience to the under-appreciated but “immensely rich and creative literature of Anglo-Saxon England” (7). The year in question was in some respects profoundly different from our own. Prior to their conversion to Christianity in the seventh century (and by default, to the Roman reckoning of time), the Anglo-Saxons had a lunisolar calendar that consisted of ten months and only two seasons: winter and summer. While we think of late December as the beginning of winter, Anglo-Saxons thought of the same date as “midwinter,” halfway through its course. Similarly, while we think of June 24 as a few days after the start of summer, our forebears thought of it as “midsummer.”
Anglo-Saxon authors often used the seasons of winter and summer as a synecdoche for the year. Folks counted their age by how many “winters in the world” they had spent, while our word year is derived from gear, an Old English word for summer (16). The Christian calendar was itself a synthesis of Jewish and Roman calendars, but at least both were anchored in the Mediterranean. Now that calendar was being applied to a country on the edge of northern Europe with significantly different seasons and agricultural cycles. Yet somehow a successful fusion occurred and was “remarkably durable,” (21) more or less surviving the Vikings, the Normans, and the Reformation until the twentieth century alienated the average Englishman from the rhythms of agriculture and changed the meaning of his holidays.
Henrietta Marshall, “Stories of Beowulf,” 1908
On the surface, the Christian Anglo-Saxon year might appear to be only partially converted. In contrast to other languages, English has a number of ostensibly pagan holdouts: “Yule” and “Midwinter” are used for Advent and Christmas (68-73) while “Lent” (Spring) and “Easter” (a goddess) signify the Great Fast and the Feast of the Resurrection, respectively (17, 123-24). Yet Parker sets the record straight. “For Anglo-Saxon writers, adopting [these] terms…into Christian vocabulary was a way of interpreting their own culture and environment in the light of their Christian faith, finding in these terms a new meaning that was, in their eyes, more true and powerful” (73).
Examples abound. The season of Advent, with its anticipation of the Second Coming, found resonance in Old Norse fears of a winter apocalypse (62). Candlemas, the feast of the Purification on February 2, heralds the coming of Spring, when winter is “carried out of the dwellings”; just as Mary bears Christ to the Temple, so too is winter borne away (89). Lent, the name for which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for to grow or lengthen, is a reminder that bodily mortifications facilitate spiritual growth (108-17). On Good Friday, Anglo-Saxons interpreted the Crucifixion through their warrior culture, worshiping Christ as the conqueror of death and Hell (133): the Dream of the Rood, Parker notes, “resonates in many ways with the liturgy of Good Friday” (130). The feast of the Holy Cross on May 3 had special significance in the Anglo-Saxon imagination, for according to Scandinavian myth mankind was made from a tree, and trees were associated with a parent’s loss of his child (216) The lesser Rogationtide (or “Gang Days,” from “walking about”) were replete with meaning to the Anglo-Saxon mind, providing a time for social interaction and a blessing of the land (159-62). On Ascension Day, Christ was envisioned as a springtime bird, “moving with ease between heaven and earth” (163):
So the beautiful bird took to flight.
Now he sought the home of the angels,
That glorious country, bold and strong in might;
Now he swung back to earth again,
Sought the ground by grace of the Spirit,
Returned to the world (163).
Ascension folio, 13th century
The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on June 24 mixed with the awe and fears of midsummer (172-78). August 1 was Lammas Day (“Loaf’s Mass Day”), when the wheat harvest reminded Anglo-Saxons that the “lord” was the “bread-guardian” and the “lady” was the “bread-kneader” (193). For Michaelmas on September 29, Michael was a “psychopomp” (a new word for me) “who guided souls to the afterlife and the bearer of the scales of divine justice” (206). In other words, Michael, like the laborers who honored him during this season, was a harvester.
Unlike the Celts who turned their Samhain into All Hallows’ Eve on October 31, the Anglo-Saxons preferred Hallowmas Day on November 1, “which reflected a profound devotion to the saints which was as deeply felt in Anglo-Saxon England as it was anywhere in the medieval church [sic]” (221). “To believe in the saints,” Parker writes, “was to be part of a vast community, a fellowship that encompassed the living and the dead in one” (ibid).
Parker is also good at debunking myths about the Anglo-Saxon appropriation of Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, no literature from the period mentions the Easter bunny or Easter eggs. Eggs are not linked to Easter until the late Middle Ages (after the Norman conquest in 1066), and references to hares and rabbits are much later (126).
Winters in the World is enlightening and entertaining. It is a reminder of the universality of the Gospel, and a testimony to the power of the Gospel to inform, enrich, and transform every people, tribe, and tongue. Would that all evangelizations were so successful.

This review first appeared in  Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 27:2 (2023), pp. 270-273. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: